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This article by Joan Crespi was prepared for the April 9, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Drama Review: `The Last Bridge’

Rarely does a new, inventive, and moving play on a

weighty subject find the perfect actor to carry the show, but George

Street Playhouse has pulled it off. The blonde, radiant Monica West,

whether joyful or tormented, couldn’t be better in her role as Barbara

in this world premier of "The Last Bridge," now running through

April 20.

The play, inspired by the life of young Barbara Ledermann, is set

on a completely black, blank, stage, with a polished black floor.

At the rear of the stage, tall doors open occasionally, surreally,

revealing the world outside, then close into the back wall. Award-winning

playwright Wendy Kesselman — her new adaptation of Tony-nominated

"The Diary of Anne Frank" was produced on Broadway — wrote

the play. David Saint, George Street’s artistic director, directs

with skill. Scenes black out; the play moves quickly, never flagging.

It is West’s performance that makes this production so powerful.

The play is a series of penetrating vignettes (don’t expect the last

bridge to be a climax: there isn’t one). The time is from 1933 to

1945, from Barbara as a happy child in Berlin roller skating with

a longtime friend who fingers her hair (it is Barbara’s blonde hair

and fair skin that allow her to pass as a non Jew). Anti-Semitism

is in the air. The friend reviles Barbara with "you people"

and bares a swastika arm band. In 1933, when Hitler comes to power,

the Ledermann family is visiting Barbara’s grandparents in Amsterdam

and is warned not to return. They move to Amsterdam. Barbara wants

only to be a dancer.

Barbara’s father, Franz, a prosperous attorney in Berlin, is

an ardent German. Even when he is warned later that the Germans are

killing Jews, he continues to believe that "the Germans would

never do it." Her mother is a pianist, and the neighbors come

to listen. She says she loves her mother more than anyone in the world.

Barbara has a younger sister, Sanne, and the song "Sanne,"

"If I ever go away, try to understand," repeatedly haunts

the play. Neither father, mother, or Sanne ever appear onstage.

Faced with Barbara’s long narrative recollections, Kesselman has ingeniously

created dialogues in which Barbara uses finger puppets for her mother

and father as she mimics their voices.

Unlike World War I, when Holland remained neutral, the Nazis invade

and occupy that nation. Barbara, forced to wear the yellow star required

of Jews, to go to a Jewish school, and to work, is plagued by a nightmare

of children hanging inside a slaughterhouse.

She meets Manfred Grunberg (convincingly played by Michael Gillis),

already a resistance fighter, his friend Leo (Patch Darragh), and

Manfred’s sister, Marga (Heidi Armbruster). All are in the resistance.

Both Darragh and Armbruster in various disguises play several roles

in the play and, with Gillis, are excellent. (All are veterans of

the stage; each is making a George Street debut.) Manfred and Barbara

fall in love. (The seduction scene is so oblique and tender, it could

be missed.) Touchingly, she tells her parents afterward and asks,

"Will you still love me?"

Nightly, as the months progress, there are going-away parties with

joyous hora-like dancing for those leaving (the departing, who have

been "called up" by the Germans, do not know they are going

to their deaths). Manfred knows this and warns Barbara, whom he loves.

"You go, you die."

Barbara runs from one side of the stage to the other — Manfred,

her family, and probable death — then dances out her anguish as

she is torn between them. Finally her love of Manfred makes her promise

not to go if called up. He provides her with false identity papers.

She leaves her family and spends eight months away from them in the


In one short scene a Nazi officer on a bridge allows her to pass,

not suspecting she is a Jew, warning her only to go if she wants to

remain a virgin.

Her parents want her to come home: she does, and the family is overjoyed.

She returns to Manfred and the resistance where she is daring, freezing,

starving. The family is "called up" and taken to Westerbork,

a transit camp. Again, she is tormented. "I should have stayed

with them." She joyously rereads her mother’s postcard from Westerbork,

then learns from the Red Cross that her family has all died in Auschwitz.

The war over, Barbara has the courage and resolve to leave Manfred,

acknowledging that he saved her life. A friend of her father’s will

sponsor her emigration to New York. "And what will you do there?"

Manfred asks. Her answer: "Live. Just live."

The genesis of the play? David Saint saw a 1999 documentary, "Daring

to Resist," which told the stories of three women, including Barbara’s.

Mindful of New Jersey’s Holocaust education mandate, he spoke to Wendy

Kesselman who wanted to write a script for the touring company. It

is expected to be seen by some 80,000 students in the academic year.

This is especially pertinent because Barbara, at the time of her anguished

choice, was 17, the same age as students seeing the play. What would

they do? That play runs 50 minutes. With dancing, the full play is

90 minutes.

Is the play difficult to watch? Not at all. The performances

are mesmerizing, the play inspiring. West not only can act, she’s

a fine ballet dancer. The opening night audience eagerly gave the

play and its four-person cast a standing ovation.

What became of Barbara? Barbara Ledermann Rodbell met her late

husband, Martin, in an amateur theater group; in 1994 he won the Nobel

Prize in medicine. A small woman in stature, she still has blonde

hair, short now, and wavy. She flew in from her home in North Carolina

for opening night when she met Wendy Kesselman for the first time.

(They had spoken repeatedly by phone.) Some of her family accompanied

her. She had four children — "two for myself and two for my

sister" — and now has seven grandchildren.

— Joan Crespi

The Last Bridge, George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston

Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. Performances to April 20. $26

to $50

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